China’s internet regulator praises whistle-blowers for keeping cyberspace free of ‘harmful’ content

Nectar Gan

China’s top internet regulator has given itself a pat on the back for successfully mobilising the world’s largest online population as its unofficial censors.

People blowing the whistle on one another for uploading “harmful” content has become a crucial part of the country’s online governance, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) said in a statement released on Friday.

Last year alone, 165 million reports of such material were filed across the country, a figure more than double the previous year’s and four times the number in 2016, the agency said.

While the total looks set to continue growing, the number of reports filed in the first six months of this year was up only 9 per cent from the same period of 2018.

China’s ruling Communist Party maintains a vice-like grip on the nation’s internet via a sophisticated censorship system known as the Great Firewall that blocks large numbers of foreign websites and slows down traffic for others.

According to CAC director Zhuang Rongwen all of China’s internet users – it has about 854 million, or more than two-and-a-half times the population of the United States – are encouraged to join the “people’s war” to rehabilitate the “cyber ecology”.

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Beijing’s strict censorship, coupled with President Xi Jinping’s wider crackdown on all forms of dissent, has led to widespread concern among liberal intellectuals, journalists and opinion leaders in China who complain of unfair scrutiny and censorship of their social media posts for even the mildest criticism of government policy or slightest deviation from the party line.

In the early days of Hong Kong’s summer of discontent, for instance, posts that sought to explain why Hongkongers were taking to the streets to oppose the extradition law were a prime target for the army of whistle-blowers.

The cyberspace regulator provides a list of subjects that volunteer censors should look out for and report. Photo: Shutterstock

The CAC even provides a list of subjects that the volunteer censors should look out for and report. It includes: information that undermines national security or interests; incites the subversion of state power, the socialist system or succession; promotes terrorism, extremism or ethnic hatred; spreads violence, obscenity or pornography; disturbs economic or social orders; violates other people’s reputation or privacy; or breaks the law or regulations in any other way.

Besides its length, critics say the terms used by the regulator are so vague that they can be interpreted in any way it chooses.

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The whistle-blowing system has been around since 2004, when a centre for reporting illegal and harmful information was set up under the CAC. A year later, rules were drawn up for rewarding whistle-blowers, and they can now receive up to 2,000 yuan (US$280) for the information they provide, although it is not clear exactly how the awards are determined.

The network now comprises 21 provincial centres for handling reports and more than 2,600 websites through which people can make them, the CAC said.

The administration made particular mention of the work carried out by its reporting centre in China’s far western Xinjiang region, which it said had harnessed the power of internet users “to discover and handle violent, terrorist and extremist information”, and which in turn had made an “important contribution to maintaining social stability”.

Xinjiang has been the focus of a harsh security crackdown and controversial “deradicalisation programme” by Beijing that has reportedly led to the detention of more than 1 million Uygurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in the name of fighting terrorism and religious extremism.

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